The big picture in Asia
February 18, 2007
Headlines around the globe in bold type are proclaiming: "North Korea agrees to nuclear disarmament."
On the same day North Korea seemed to be making a promise, China jumped in with a piece of its own headline making news: "China says no more satellite-killer (ASAT) tests." Should we believe them?
No. The record of going through with promises and treaties by China and North Korea is abysmal. In many Asian cultures, and especially Chinese culture, the only thing that counts is achieving one's goals no matter how long it takes, by constantly moving the ball down the field.
Cultures of specific groups are formed over centuries, not just decades. They are often times difficult for outsiders to understand and they can only be changed or modified very gradually. Combine this with what many ethicists call the "Culture of Corruption." Should we believe the ethicists?
Perhaps, because understanding much of Chinese culture, which has developed over thousands of years, has been highly influenced by Confucianism -- not the rule of law.
"The dominant strain of Confucianism stresses avoidance of conflict, a social hierarchy that values seniority and patriarchy," and several other factors, wrote Asia Media contributor Professor Ying Zhu.
"These principles are directly at odds both with capitalism's faith in free markets and with modern political institutions," said Professor Zhu. "Professor Hu Xingdou, a political scientist at the Beijing Institute of Technology, advocates adherence to more tangible systems of accountability like the rule of law and Western-style democratic elections."
Given the cultural influence and the so-called "Culture of Corruption," why else would China promise to give up its ASAT capability while assisting in brokering a deal on North Korea?
Because China is riding high in the Pacific just now, even as the United States is primarily focused upon Iran and Iraq. North Korea's missile launches and nuclear testing came as something of a surprise to the preoccupied American government.
Then there is the booming Chinese economy. Speaking of China's government leaders, Yuan Gangming, an economist with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a top think tank, said "As in 2006, they want a growth rate of 10.5 percent or even higher."
China has used the profits of its phenomenal commercial success, in part, to initiate the modernization of the People's Liberation Army, China's armed forces. And the ASAT test in January was not the only apparent act of provocation by China's military.
Last October a Chinese submarine stalked a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier and surfaced within sight of the ship -- an unprecedented show of capability.
China is quietly making inroads into other parts of Asia. Last September, a bloodless military coup in Thailand deposed the democratically elected government and the generals appointed their own leadership. The U.S. condemned the action and withheld $24 million in military aid from Thailand in protest to the coup.
But then China opened a more lively discussion of military matters with Thailand. Senior officials from Thailand have visited China and China is reciprocating. China also offered Thailand $49 million worth of military aid and training.
No senior U.S. officials have visited Thailand since the September coup and requests to have senior Thai officials visit Washington have been denied.
The largest U.S.-Thailand military exercise, "Cobra Gold," will be the topic of high level diplomatic and political discussions in the near term. U.S. and Thai defense official have told us planning for Cobra Gold was seriously disrupted by the coup. Now a political decision must be made to proceed with the cooperative event or cancel it outright.
And though China has a horrible record on human rights, China's state-run media will not comment and the so-called Western media has been lenient. Chinese President Hu Jintao visited several African nations last month, including Sudan.
The U.N., the EU and the United States are all isolating if not boycotting Sudan for its barbaric behavior in Darfur. While in Sudan on Feb. 2, 2007, on a trade and business development mission, President Hu made no public remarks about Darfur.
Zhang Dong, China's ambassador to Khartoum, told Xinhua news agency on Thursday that China "never interferes in Sudan's internal affairs."
Finally, last month 16 Asian nations met in the Philippines for the second East Asian Summit.
They agreed to reduce poverty in Asia while increasing better energy security: a principle goal of China which cannot sustain its economic machine without vast imports of oil. The U.S. was not invited to participate in this conference. Host Philippines President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, said, "We are happy to have China as our big brother in this region."
So, everything in the North Korean disarmament deal over North Korea points toward a China wanting to not overplay its hand because it is mainly getting exactly what it wants economically, politically, militarily and as an influence throughout Asia and the world. One last often overlooked factor is that China desperately wants to make a splash on the world stage when it hosts the Olympics in 2008. The Chinese do not want to risk angering any nation in the Pacific in the interim.
The naive belief China can be taken its word belies history and reminds one of the Munich Agreement between Adolf Hitler and British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. Believing in a policy of appeasement and by not imposing checks and balances upon Hitler, Chamberlain in 1938 had to rely upon trusting an evil dictator. He had none of the "trust but verify" that Ronald Reagan believed in. Chamberlain held up the agreement he had signed with Herr Hitler and proclaimed that the accord with the Germans signaled "peace for our time."
America needs to be wary of China and ensure rigid checks on any agreement.
John E. Carey is the former president of International Defense Consultants Inc. and a frequent contributor to The Washington Times. He has lived in China.